Tag Archives: Atheism

The Time to Stop Debating Debate

matt_dilahuntyA while back I wrote an article called “Time to Stop Debating” that was published in American Atheists Magazine. I also posted a version in this blog (see here). In it I suggested that the Atheist Movement has moved into a phase in which it should focus on normalizing atheism, and that one important strategy to accomplish that is to  “stop debating.” Shortly after, atheist activist Matt Dillahunty (see here) posted a 25 minute rebuttal video (see here).

I thank Mr. Dillahunty for his sincere and thoughtful rebuttal in defense of continued debate. I felt that he did make a conscientious effort to be fair and even-handed while arguing that debate remains one of our most important strategies to win hearts and change minds. We do not disagree on that.

While he certainly presented a well-crafted argument, it is probably unsurprising that I do not feel he made his case and that his objections were overstated. One major problem is that he characterized my call to “stop debating” as tantamount to surrender and refusing to engage. He repeatedly paints a picture of a minority of atheists remaining silent and passive while refusing to engage in meaningful debate with a vigorous religious majority.

Clearly, I did not advocate any such complacency. I advocate engagement in all forms of discussion and persuasion. What I did say however, is that in those conversations we should take a stronger “no debate” stance on issues of belief and religion. That is, we should reject out-of-hand arguments based on faith, refuse to entertain them, and instead insist upon engaging on the basis of universal principles and evidence.

To illustrate this nuance, think of how we treat racism. We don’t “debate” racism anymore, even though a large number of people may still wish to do so. Yes, we still engage actively in social policy driven by or impeded by racist ideology. But we won’t seriously respond to discredited arguments like whether white men have superior brains. We engage in policy discussions and debate them vigorously, but we only give serious consideration to legitimate arguments. If white racists argue that they deserve special privileges purely because they are god’s chosen ones, we reject it out-of-hand without undeserved debate. To do so would “only” elevate that notion and distract from substantive debate. However, if those same white supremacists make fact-based arguments for the same policies, we should then engage honestly in that debate and be willing to be open-minded.

In public discourse, there are many topics that are “not up for debate.” We should likewise exclude religious fantasy from serious debate. If you argue that god exists or humans were created, we should dismiss those arguments as inherently invalid. If you invoke god or the Bible to justify a policy position, we should insist that you put forth legitimate arguments based upon universal principles. This should be particularly true in all government hearings and debates, but sadly it is not.

Therefore I am not advocating for refusing to engage at all. I am advocating for gradually extricating ourselves from the debate embrace that has enthralled us for millennia. It is unfair of Mr. Dillahunty to dismiss my argument by carrying it to an extreme; just as it would be unfair if I were to portray his position as advocating for the paralysis of the status quo. In the abortion debate and many others, as long as the religious Right can keep us debating on their terms, they are effectively neutralizing us. What we are willing to accept as legitimate debate is itself part of the debate and part of the persuasive process.

And as far as the persuadable middle is concerned, it is my perception that for every one person that someone like Mr. Dillahunty may rightly feel proud to have influenced for the better, there are many, many more whose uncertainty is reinforced by seemingly legitimate debate that makes it appear that “reasonable people disagree” and “there are good arguments on both sides.” Creating doubt through debate is exactly the horribly successful tactic that has been exploited by “The Merchants of Doubt” on a wide range of important issues to create intellectual and policy paralysis (see here).

Mr. Dillahunty makes some other earnest sounding arguments that are not particularly compelling. He argues that although debate has gone on essentially forever, we have new media today that could change the game in our favor. I see no historical evidence of that. Certainly the printing press did not fundamentally change the debate. In fact the Bible became the most widely printed book ever. Likewise it is not clear that the Internet will somehow make our traditional debate tactics more successful.

Mr. Dillahunty also repeatedly asserts that my strategy would only work if we atheists were in the majority. He has no basis for certainty in that assertion. There are many examples of social norms of legitimate discourse that are effectively enforced by a relatively small minority. His argument arises from his assertion that fact-based thinkers have little sway or leverage in society. That is not my assessment; we have reality on our side and the religious zealots who engage in irrational debate are in fact a minority. Finally, if we do not drive this change, if we wait for patient, deferential debate to get us there, we never will. We will be hosting the same silly debates with a Ken Ham (see here) in another thousand years, if we had that luxury of time.

So let me once more sincerely thank Mr. Dillahunty for his stimulating rebuttal. Though I am not swayed, it was entertaining and thought-provoking. I have no doubt that his efforts to educate and inform are valuable and I’m not trying to put him out of business. Quite the opposite, we need talented debaters like Mr. Dillahunty to push us out of this quagmire of eternal debates about fantasy. We should not waste talent like his rebutting long-disproved arguments rather than helping to propel the secular movement into the normalization phase.

 

Our Next Existential Battle

Right now most of us feel caught up in an existential battle against the Trumpian forces of corrupt dictatorship. With so much to deal with, it is natural to not even want to think about our next battle. Yet, assuming our democracy survives the reign of Trump, we need to prepare for the likely struggle to follow. Our next war will almost certainly be against Mike Pence and the forces of theocracy.

It is my theory of presidential succession that voters swing, pendulum-like, from one extreme to another as we recoil from and overcompensate for what we perceive as the flaws in our last president (see here). It is very likely that the disaster of Donald Trump is going to push our collective emotional pendulum right into the waiting arms of the Religious Right.

As the catastrophe that is Donald Trump unravels, Conservatives will argue that Trump was no “true” Christian, that he was rather a secular leader and that his abject moral failure as a person and as a president is proof that secular values is an oxymoron. What Donald Trump will prove is that we need a good Christian leader of high moral character to lead us. And make no mistake, many, many liberals and progressives will accept that argument.

HolyPenceMike Pence, or perhaps someone else, will eagerly assume the role of our new moral savior. Certainly Mike Pence is poised and waiting for his opportunity. In fact many Christian leaders explicitly proclaim that the Donald Trump presidency will pave their way to theocratic dominance (see here).

And as soon as the Religious Right gains even more legitimacy and power than they already have, they will proceed quickly and vigorously to impose their theocratic beliefs on everyone else. They will roll back many of the secular freedoms that we have achieved as a society through generations of blood and tears. They will impose religious tests in every public matter, further marginalize science and reason, and disadvantage anyone who does not share their particular faith.

It is certain that the Religious Right will leverage the moral and political failures of Donald Trump to push us as far toward their extreme as they can. We should not fall prey to this set-up for a disastrous pendulum swing. We should not accept any kind of false choice argument between vile Trumpian delusion and vile Religious delusion.

On the hopeful side, this is a battle we can win if we are smart. People often speculate on whether it would be a good thing to impeach Trump tomorrow if we could, and accept Pence as president. I say yes! Our democracy is frankly not well-equipped to deal with corrupt and crazy. However, we do have explicit Constitutional protections against religious extremism, provided we defend those protections.

Trump’s greatest historical impact will likely not be pulling us into a dictatorship as he intends, but rather pushing us into a theocracy as he does not intend. Protecting our separation of church and state and establishing strong secular leadership are more important than ever. If not because of Donald Trump specifically, then because of the even more consequential battle against theocracy that is almost certain to follow in his wake.

 

Cloud Angels

CloudAngelA recent article in People Magazine was entitled Texas Driver Spots ‘Spectacular’ Cloud Shaped Like an Angel: ‘How Awesome Is That?’ (see here).

Although the question was rhetorical – well actually it was meant as more a statement than a question – I’ll answer it anyway.

Not very!

The reality is that at any given moment of any day from any point anywhere on Earth, there are clouds that we could imagine bear some resemblance to something other than a billowy mass of condensed water vapor floating in the atmosphere.

Some of these clouds might resemble boats, or alligators, or elephants, or pretty much anything really. The limit is our imaginations. So it is fun, but not particularly newsworthy, to take note of the wacky shapes that clouds happen upon. That is, unless the image is religious, and in that case it is apparently quite newsworthy.

The truth is that of all the clouds, or pieces of toast, or rotten peaches, or paint stains, that look like something, we don’t get really excited about these random resemblances unless they resemble an angel, or Jesus, or Mother Mary, or some vague Saint. All this random stuff is just random, unless it has a religious connotation. In that case, random stuff is inspiring, proof of gods hand in the world, miraculous, and fascinatingly newsworthy.

This all speaks to our powerful mental ability to create patterns that conform to our particular confirmation biases. Moreover it also speaks to our intense desire and interest in any confirmation of our religious bias in particular.

And I can see how a cloud pattern, or some lichen on a rock create powerful imagery. I had one such experience.

I was on the beach in Costa Rica watching baby tortoises dauntlessly plunge into the ocean only to be thrown back onto the sand over and over again by the uncaring waves. It was late afternoon and I glanced up, only to stare in wonder at the sky. Directly in front of me were the very gates of heaven. A glowing pathway lead up from directly before me to a shimmering cloud platform. Upon it stood two gleaming pearly gates, connected by a vibrant golden archway, highlighted by dramatic halos of light. Within the great arch, in the distance, was a glowing point of light so divine that it could only have been the glow of god almighty.

The sight was so photo-realistically detailed and delineated with vibrant color and perfect proportions that it made the Texas cloud angel look like a child’s watercolor. I gaped in wonder for a moment before I thought to reach for my camera. But by the time I fumbled to work it, the lines had begun to blur, the light to diminish, and the effect to become far more abstract. That singular moment was past. Within minutes the gates of heaven were once again just one more set of abstract cloud shapes.

Given that experience, I can understand how primitive people might be so inspired as to believe they had actually glimpsed a heavenly place revealed to them in the sky. I can understand how they might have taken this as proof of heaven. Or, perhaps, thousands of years ago someone glimpsed a sight very similar to my own and created our modern imagery of heaven based upon that one powerful awe-inspiring moment.

But what I cannot understand and cannot excuse is any modern person today believing that some vaguely angel-shaped cloud is particularly inspiring or reassuring, let alone believed to be a message from god. And I find it doubly disappointing that a news outlet, even one that is merely reporting human interest stories, would preferentially pick out these kind of “sightings” to report, thereby depositing yet another straw of religious delusion on the already straining back of the reason and rationality of our culture.

 

Atheism Still Matters

SaveThePlanetWe live in a period of grave social challenges. A woman’s right to choose is under serious assault. No haven seems safe from deadly outbreaks of gun violence. Our core institutions of democracy and social justice are being misused or methodically dismantled by self-serving leaders. And while there is so much demanding our immediate attention, looming above it all is our inexorable march toward catastrophic upheaval brought on by global climate change.

In the face of all that, it seems kind of silly to fuss about whether someone believes in god or not. Individually and collectively, don’t we have far more important things to worry about than some philosophical argument over purely personal beliefs?

Besides, the atheist movement has achieved their goals, right? Atheists are out of the closet. They can host talk shows on HBO after all. Religion is on the decline. So let’s move on already! Maybe the atheist movement should just wind down gracefully instead of clinging to their increasingly obsolete and unnecessary cause. Declining numbers of attendees at atheist events suggests that even among hardcore atheists, other priorities are taking precedence and passion is waning.

It’s unfortunate that energy for atheism as a cause is being diverted,  because here’s the thing. Religion is not actually in any danger of disappearing. Organized religion may also be in decline, at least for now, but “disorganized” belief-based thinking in the form of New Age and more recently Post Fact worldviews are very much on the rise. And despite their declining numbers, the influence of organized religion is nevertheless still growing. Our separation of church and state is as besieged as ever and atheists are still reviled and grossly underrepresented at all levels of leadership.

So the atheist movement is definitely not obsolete. On the contrary, it is needed more desperately today than ever. It is needed because at their core atheists are simply people with a deep respect for facts and reason and humanist ethics. Make no mistake, we atheists are not activists just because we want others to acknowledge that god is merely a silly fantasy. We atheists are activists because we care deeply about truth and facts and reality. We are atheist activists because we care deeply about bronze-age myths driving our public policies and infiltrating our educational systems.

And we are atheists because we understand that belief-based thinking can only compromise and harm the critical rational faculties that we desperately need to solve the urgent problems confronting us in our modern world. We atheists understand that “harmless” beliefs prepare people to be receptive and vulnerable to post-truth, post-factual, and even post-reality arguments. We know that belief-based arguments and false claims of factual equivalence generally serve only to manipulate people to act and to vote contrary to facts and reason and therefore against their own self-interest.

We atheists understand that you can chop at weeds as much as you like and they will just keep popping up. To eradicate harmful belief-based rationalizations, you have to pluck out the roots. It is those deep, insidious, roots of belief that atheism fights against. Religious conditioning to accommodate irrational belief prepares people to rationalize inaction on climate change, for example, or to accept fallacious logic and fantastical authority in supporting guns or racism or the restriction women’s rights. And that is why belief in god or the denial of evolution are legitimate litmus tests of our capacity for sound thinking, both individually and as a society.

Therefore, if you care about making making sane, fact-based, ethical decisions regarding women’s rights, or gun violence, or climate change, or anything else – you should care about atheism as well.  Pick another cause and champion it. But also support atheism because it strives to erode the foundation of belief-based, irrational, and dogmatic thinking that probably supports and enables whatever injustice you are fighting against.

Whether you are fully atheist or not, whether you are agnostic, or have no opinion, or are a None, even if you are an Evangelical or a Muslim, you don’t have to fully deny the existence of god to join us in solidarity for facts, for reason, and in promoting ethical and socially conscious humanist values. Whatever your cause, if you are battling against belief and manipulation, atheists are probably your allies. And regardless of whether you believe the universe was created in seven days, you can still join us in wonder and appreciation of our natural universe as revealed by science.

So even as you fight your day-to-day battles, join with us atheists and support us in our still essential movement to combat the belief-based thinking that probably underpins the social wars you are waging. Join us to support and encourage the humanist, fact-based solutions that will move us forward with reason and compassion and sanity.

 

You can read my other blog articles on atheism by clicking on the “Atheism” category on the right side of this screen and scrolling down through them. Or you can type in a keyword and search, try “Ken Ham” for example.

I have also written about these topics and much more in my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief. If you’d like a little more meat but aren’t big on reading, check out my short video called Factuality for the Cliff Notes version.

 

The Multiverse is Bigger than God

MultiverseOur gods used to be gods of specific things; the sky, the sea, war, love. Then God took over and became the god of everything. But our understanding of “everything” keeps expanding, and as it does, our fanciful notion of God has to expand along with it to remain ever beyond the limits of mere science.

The visible horizon of our observable universe is 46.5 billion light years away in any direction. That is an immense distance, and this visible sphere around us contains about 100 billion galaxies, each with perhaps 100 billion stars. Our God of everything created all that too, presumably just for us to look at.

But wait, there’s more, much more. Today we understand that our universe is almost certainly unimaginably larger than that which we can observe. It is perhaps 100 billion trillion times larger than our observable universe. That makes what we can see just the tiniest mote of dust in our greater universe. In our observable universe we can look into the sky and at least see what happened in the distant past. We can not even see out into the darkness beyond that. But since it apparently exists, believers have no choice except to inflate God once more. God presumably created all that inaccessible space beyond the horizon as well, and just for us.

It gets better. Now we are beginning to understand that God apparently created an infinite multiverse just for us as well. I first recall being fascinated by the idea of multiple universes in 1966 when Mr. Spock met Captain Kirk’s evil counterpart from an alternate universe (see here). But just as Star Trek communicators became everyday reality, the science fiction of multiple universes has become legitimate science.

There are many forms that the multiverse may take, but for now let it suffice to think of an infinite number of universes just like ours, maybe isolated in pockets of space, maybe superimposed upon each other, maybe both. Their infinity extends through both time and space. This infinite multiverse is not static. In it (if the word “in” even applies to an infinite space) universes appear, grow old, and die. Each is born with a particular set of fundamental parameters. Only a relatively tiny (but still infinite) fraction have parameters in the “Goldilocks” range that allow organized structures. In a tiny fraction of those, life is possible. The rest are stillborn or survive for a short while as unsustainable regions of chaos.

How can it get more mind-blowing? Well it is an inescapable logical conclusion is that in an infinite multiverse everything that could possibly happen must happen. For example, there must be a universe in which every possible variation of our own exists, in fact there must be an infinite number of each possible variation – infinite numbers of each of us.

Whatever form it takes, we become even more insignificant within the time-space grandeur of the multiverse. So our notion of God must once again expand dramatically to exceed even the non-existent bounds of an already infinite multiverse in order to remain the unbounded God of all things. And of course God created that infinite multiverse, so far beyond our ability to grasp let alone interact with, just for we infinitesimal humans.

I talk about god here knowing full well that it is of course completely silly to do so. I might as well talk about the how our notion of Santa Claus must expand to encompass the belief that he has to deliver Christmas presents to all children in the multiverse on one night. Yet, unfortunately we do focus our attention on our fantasy of god whenever these cosmological discussions take place.

Some “religious scholars” try desperately to keep god relevant in the face of our growing awareness by arguing that in a multiverse in which all things are possible, god must exist somewhere. In an otherwise decent article author Mark Vernon (see here), perpetuates this fallacy by repeating that since “everything is possible somewhere … it would have to conclude that God exists in some universes.

This will certainly keep getting repeated but it is simply not a correct interpretation of the science to say that in a multiverse “everything is possible.” This is a perversion of the correct formulation which is “everything possible must happen.” These are completely different ideas. Any particular universe is still governed by its own physics and there is a limit to the possible physics of any given universe. Impossible things, like gods and ghosts, can not happen in any universe.

And even if some universe had some being approaching a god, it would still not be an omnipotent god of everything and it would certainly not be our god. Therefore I am not sure how claiming that a God exists in some other universe does anything but admit that one does not exist in our own.

So what is the most rational of the possible irrational responses for someone clinging to their belief in god in the face of a multiverse? The best would be simply to claim that god created the multiverse and not even try to invoke any pseudo-scientific arguments. As you always have, just keep expanding your definition of god to supersede whatever new boundaries science reveals.

But really, adding God to the multiverse is simply adding fake infinity on top of real infinity. Like infinity plus infinity, the extra infinity is entirely superfluous and unnecessary. And what does it add to place God beyond infinity? It only replaces the insistence that something had to create the multiverse with an acceptance that nothing had to create God. It’s silly, especially given the fact that our limited concept of “before” has little relevance in an infinite multiverse.

Better yet would be to finally give in and acknowledge that the multiverse has rendered your god small and insignificant and kind of pathetic. God is like a quaint old Vaudeville act that can no longer compete with huge 3-D superhero blockbusters, and looks silly trying. Back in the day, it might have been an understandable conceit to believe that God created the Earth just for us… or even maybe the solar system. But the level of conceit required to believe that some God created the entire multiverse just for us is wildly absurd. The idea that such a God would be focused on us is insanely narcissistic.

The multiverse forces God to grow SO large, that it swells him far beyond any relevance to us or us to him.

So abandon your increasingly simplistic idea of god and find comfort, wonder, and inspiration in our incredible multiverse. You do not need to feel increasingly insignificant and worthless in this expanding multiverse. You don’t need God to give you a phony feeling of significance and meaning within it. All it takes is the flip of a mental soft-switch and you can find comfort and wonder and meaning in our amazing multiverse. It’s all just in your head after all.

I do not share the pessimism of some that we can never “see” or understand the multiverse. My working assumption is that even the greater multiverse is our cosmos, that it is knowable. If we survive Climate Change, we may eventually understand it more fully through indirect observations or through the magical lens of mathematics. Until then, if you are intrigued and stimulated by these real possibilities, I highly recommend that you read the excellent overview article by Robert Lawrence Kuhn (see here).

Compartmentalizing Delusion

CompartmentsReligious people hold a lot of beliefs that nonbelievers conclude are delusional (see here). Many of these believers also hold important positions of responsibility in the government, in the media, and business. Some of them even sit on our Congressional Science Committee. Their decisions deeply impact public policy and the very existence of us and of our planet.

Those most fervent in their beliefs proudly tout the fact that their deeply held religious beliefs guide and influence all of their decisions as a lawmaker. But when someone points out that those deeply held religious beliefs are in direct conflict and contradiction to basic reason and accepted public policy, they then typically claim compartmentalization.

Essentially the contradictory claim they make is that while they affirm that they are deeply influenced by nonsensical ideas, those nonsensical ideas do not influence their thinking in rational matters. They insist that they can wail over rapture on Sunday and make prudent, long-term budget decisions on Monday. They can enumerate why evolution is a hoax cooked up by scientists at Wednesday evening Bible study, then properly assess the advise of climate change scientists in their Thursday morning advisory board meeting. They can affirm that the Bible is the only source of truth on Saturday morning, then go home and work on educational text book selections all afternoon. They assert that one is not affected by the other in the least – except when they want to tout the fact that it is.

Their amazingly selective isolation of thinking, they claim, is all thanks to the magic of compartmentalization. It lets them espouse crazy beliefs and claim to be perfectly sane and rational too. This claim is made so often and with such matter-of-fact certainty, that most people just tend to accept it as true.

But let’s examine this claim of compartmentalization more closely.

All of us compartmentalize somewhat. In fact, such compartmentalization is critical to our functioning. We mentally separate work and home, parent and spouse, private and public. When we think of scientific models, we hold two seemingly different views at the same time (see here). Compartmentalization is an essential rational and emotional adaptation. Maybe that’s partly why we accept their claim of exceptional compartmentalization so easily.

But all normal and highly functional behaviors can become abnormal and dysfunctional at some point. At the extreme, we see people with multiple personalities that are split so completely that they are not even aware of each other. And although some extremely rare individuals can apparently completely isolate their thinking, most of us cannot. For most of us, any irrational, dysfunctional thinking does spill over and taints our rational thinking.

We humans can do hand-stands too. When I was in high school, there were a couple of guys on my gymnastic team who could literally walk up and down stairs between classes, in a crowd at full speed, on their hands with perfect form. But because those rare individuals could do it doesn’t mean we can all claim it. Just because Jimmy Carter seemed to isolate his religious belief from his rational thinking in a healthy way, doesn’t mean that many of us can do that. Jimmy Carter was more like the gymnast who could walk up and down stairs on his hands. Most others who believe they can isolate belief from rationality will invariably plummet down the stairs, taking innumerable others crashing down with them.

As I point out in my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here), religious belief is the pot smoking of rational thought. Every pot smoker or alcoholic is convinced that they can handle it. That their rational thinking is not affected. They think what they are expounding while high is really profound, but it’s really just nonsensical gibberish. Religious people can’t see how ridiculous they sound while they’re high on the Bible and only listening to others who are just as stoned.

We don’t easily accept this same claim of compartmentalization in any area other than religion. We don’t fully accept that ones stressful job as a homicide cop has no affect on their home life. We would not accept the assertion by a racist that while he may attend Klan meetings on Friday nights, this has no impact on his professional behavior as a hiring manager. Most of us would be at least skeptical in accepting any opinion expressed by a Wiccan who claimed to have supernatural powers, despite any claim of compartmentalization.

Even religious people don’t accept any compartmentalization except the one they claim. If I ran for public office as an atheist, I don’t have any illusions that my claim that I can compartmentalize my atheism would be sufficient to convince any religious people to trust that my judgement has not been tainted by my atheism.

Religious thinkers claim compartmentalization to avoid legitimate skepticism regarding their compromised rationality. Sadly, we accept this claim for the most part. We should stop giving them this free pass. Not only can such fervent “deeply held” delusions not be sufficiently compartmentalized, but believers don’t really want or intend to compartmentalize away their beliefs in any case.

Religious people want and need to propagate their beliefs and weave them inextricably into public policy. Our polite acceptance of their dubious claim of compartmentalization only helps enable them to do that.

 

Agnosticism Just Won’t Die

I know I run the risk of beating a dead zombie with my blog, but I feel compelled to write yet one more article about the rotting abomination that just won’t die – agnosticism.

The reason I simply must respond yet again is because news articles and opinion pieces touting the intellectual purity of agnosticism just keep getting published everywhere you look. And these aren’t written only by religious proponents, but by scientific and academic intellectuals as well (here’s one). Like most of these agnostics, this author contends that agnosticism is misunderstood. Being agnostic is not merely being undecided or ambivalent or apathetic, but rather it’s a highly principled position that upholds sound scientific skepticism and empiricism.

The author gleefully notes, as do all agnostics as their go-to-proof-by-authority, that even Richard Dawkins admitted he is agnostic! This well-intentioned but misguided and tactically disastrous statement of philosophical agnosticism by Richard Dawkins, given who he is, has caused incredible harm to reason and rationality. Don’t follow his lead on this one.

Skepticism is indeed a hallmark of the scientific method. But skepticism is not synonymous with gullibility and science does not require you to abdicate logic and reason and common sense. Good scientists can and do reject an infinite number of ridiculous propositions out-of-hand every day. Healthy scientific skepticism does not require you to doubt everything. It merely requires that you withhold drawing conclusions regarding plausible assertions until sufficient evidence is obtained.

This is where the agnostics think they have an iron-clad argument. Since supposedly science cannot prove a negative (e.g. god does not exist), then despite the lack of positive evidence, any good scientist must be agnostic regarding anything and everything! Gotcha!!

First, scientific rigor does not require that scientists disprove every possible ridiculous statement. Imagine anything that is clearly untrue. Take for example, my claim that my banana is actually a sentient life-form named Ned from planet Zorcon that just happens to exactly resemble a banana right down to the molecular level. Ned is in a coma right now and cannot respond or do anything un-banana-like but he deserves the rights of personhood. Healthy scientific skepticism simply does not require scientists to admit that my assertion might be true. It certainly does not require that they perform studies to try to prove or disprove this claim. Scientists have no burden whatsoever of disproving my absurd claim about Ned the comatose alien banana. It is entirely my burden to prove it and until I do good scientists can and should simply reject it out of hand.

And keep in mind, these agnostics do not claim god is a plausible belief, they rather claim that regardless of how implausible it may be we must allow that it may be true nevertheless.

Next these agnostics will – cleverly they think – point out that science cannot prove a negative. This fallacy is typically summed up by quoting Martin Rees who famously pointed out that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. What this correctly points out is that just because we see no evidence of something doesn’t necessarily mean it does not exist. In fact, this quotation would be far more accurate and less misused if stated as “absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence. When this phrase is quoted by agnostics they fail to recognize that a sufficiently conclusive lack of evidence absolutely can prove a negative.

Let’s contrive an example for fun.

I do not need to even look in my bedroom to assert with 100% certainty that there is no dragon in it. There is no such thing as dragons and no reason to even consider that possibility, so therefore I can dismiss this proposition out of hand. Further, as a good scientist it is my obligation to dismiss such claims with prejudice.

elephant-in-roomBut what if the claim is not a dragon but an elephant. Well, elephants do exist and while I cannot imagine how one would get into my house, I can easily prove or disprove this claim just by glancing around my bedroom. Having done so, I can legitimately conclude with 100% certainty that there is no elephant in my bedroom. If there were an elephant hiding under the bed or behind the curtains, I would reasonably expect to have seen at least some evidence of it. Therefore, I do not need to remain agnostic with regard to the sincere heart-felt beliefs of the elephant-in-every-bedroom cult to prove I am a good scientist. I have sufficient proof to conclude with certainty that my bedroom is elephant-free and that all claims of an elephant in my bedroom are delusional.

God is like that elephant. He is SO huge that if He existed we would certainly have seen evidence. There is none.

But let’s argue that god is more elusive and secretive – like bedbugs. Let’s say that the bedbug cult claims that I have bedbugs in my bedroom. Even though I don’t see any bedbugs just by glancing around, it is still possible they may exist and as a good scientist I take the advice of Martin Rees to heart and withhold conclusion pending further evidence, positive or negative. So, I bring in trained dogs and bedbug residue detectors. I carefully examine all the places where they would be found if they were there. If, after that, I find no evidence of bedbugs I can conclude beyond any reasonable doubt that my bedroom is bedbug free. I do not have to remain agnostic about whether dragons or elephants or even bedbugs are in my room to prove I am a good scientist. Such agnosticism would only prove that a fool exists my bedroom.

Similarly no legitimate evidence of god, however secretive he may be, has ever been found, despite the fact that believers make extravagant claims about his tremendous influence over our world. 

In fact, unhealthy agnostic skepticism is the exact opposite of good science. Science, unlike mysticism, relies upon the certainty that our cosmos is knowable; that it follows rules. Not just anything is possible. If it were, the cosmos would not be knowable at all and science would be meaningless. In science, things are true, observable and logical, or they simply do not exist and are untrue, period. To say that good scientists cannot know anything for certain is to turn science into mysticism.

To be frank, agnostics are not the champions of science and reason they imagine themselves to be. Ultimately their position renders science and reason invalid. If they insist that we cannot disprove things for which there is no proof, then they are necessarily saying we cannot positively assert anything at all. For anything you could assert as true, you could simply make up any story to cause all that evidence to be in doubt. Agnostics are required by their dogma to accept that.

You can have fun with agnostics. Make up some unprovable reason to claim something silly. Agnostics will be forced to admit you might be correct because they cannot disprove your un-disprovable fantasy. This exposes how bereft of any meaning their position really is. Truth and falsity, science and mysticism, evidence and belief all collapse upon themselves into a meaningless jumble of pseudo-intellectual nonsense if you accept the agnostic view of reality.

So agnostics have a huge problem. They think they are purists in being “open-minded” enough to admit that god might exist by making a philosophical claim that we cannot really disprove (or thereby even prove) anything whatsoever. But they don’t actually apply their intellectual purity to every possible ridiculous proposition. They only selectively apply it to this particular ridiculous god assertion. Though they might stubbornly claim to apply this thinking to everything universally, clearly they do not do so in practice. In the end either these are just smart people applying convoluted logic to rationalize a particular ridiculous proposition that they want to believe or they are misguided atheists who mistakenly believe that agnosticism demonstrates their sophisticated and superior intellectual standing.

What harm does agnosticism cause? It undermines logic and reason and moves us toward a pseudo-scientific kind of mystical thinking in which anything is possible. Moreover, if we accept the agnostic argument, if we give it any credibility whatsoever, then we accept that god might exist. And if we accept that god might exist, then we must accept Pascal’s Wager and concede that it makes some sense to assume he does. And if we assume he does, then it only makes sense that believers proselytize and fight to shape government and public policy in accordance with their delusional religious thinking.

Agnosticism is the brain-eating zombie of philosophical nonsense that just won’t die. Accepting agnostic arguments is to follow them down their rabbit hole into Wonderland where the ridiculous is accepted as the norm and crazy ideas are rationalized with insanely inescapable logic.

 

The Anatomy of Thought

Mind-uploading is the fictional process by which a person’s consciousness is transferred into some inanimate object. In fantasy stories this is typically accomplished using magic. By casting some arcane spell, the person’s consciousness is transferred into a physical talisman – or it might just float around in the ether in disembodied spirit form.

Mind_switcherIn science fiction, this kind of magic is routinely accomplished by means of technology. Upgraded hair-dryers transfer the person’s consciousness into a computer or some external storage unit. There it is retained until  it can be transferred back to the original host or into some new person or device. This science fiction mainstay goes back at least to the 1951 novel “Izzard and the Membrane” by Walter M. Miller Jr.

In some of these stories, the disembodied consciousness retains awareness within the computer or within whatever golem it has been placed. Sometimes the consciousness is downloaded into a new host body. It might inhabit a recently dead body but other times it might take over a living host or even swap bodies with another consciousness. Fictional stories involving technology being used for a variety mind-downloading and body-swapping scenarios or possessions go back at least to the book to “Vice Versa” written by Thomas Anstey Guthrie in 1982.

The 2009 movie “Avatar” depicts of all sorts of sophisticated technological mind-uploading, remote consciousness-control, and even the mystical downloading of consciousness into a new body. In this and innumerable other science fiction, fantasy, and horror plots, minds are portrayed as things that can be removed and swapped out given sufficiently advanced magic or technology – like a heart or liver. This is depicted so often in fact that it seems like some routine medical procedure that must be right around the technological corner at a Body-Swap™ franchise near you.

One reason this idea seems so believable to us because it is so similar to installing new software into your computer. But the computer analogy fails here. Brains are not analogous to computers in this regard and consciousness is not analogous to a computer program. Our hardware and software are not independent. Our hardware is our software. Our thoughts are literally our anatomy.

It might be a better analogy to rather think of our brains as non-programmable analog computers in which the thinking is performed by specific electronic circuits designed to perform that logic. The logic is not programmed into the circuits, the logic is the circuitry itself. Our thoughts are not programmed into our brains, our thoughts are produced by our neural circuitry. Obviously  our thinking does change over time, but this is a physical re-linking and re-weighting of our neural connections, not the inhabitation of some separable, independent consciousness within our brains.

I allow that we might conceivably copy our consciousness into a computer, but it would only be a mapped translation programmed to emulate our thought patterns. And as far-fetched as that is, downloading our consciousness into another brain is infinitely more far-fetched. That would require rewiring the target brain, that is, changing its physical microstructure. Maybe there is some scientific plausibility to that, like a magnet aligning all the particles of iron along magnetic ley lines. But it’s incredibly unlikely. We’d essentially have to scan all the connections in the subject’s brain and then physically realign all the neurons in the target brain in exactly the same way and tune the strength of all the connections identically.

And even if we did that, there are lots of nuanced effects that would still introduce differences. Our body chemistry and external drugs influence how these neurons fire. In fact, it’s likely that even if our brain were physically transplanted into a new host body, subtle differences in the environment of the new body would affect us in unanticipatable ways, influencing the very thoughts and emotions that make us – us.

Yet our fantasy imagining of consciousness as an independent abstraction not only persists but largely dominates our thinking. Even the most modern intellectuals tend to be locked into at least an implicit assumption of a mind-body dualism. René Descartes was a key figure in bringing scientific and philosophical credibility to what is fundamentally a religious fantasy concocted to make religion seem plausible (see here).

For religious thinkers, a mind-body duality MUST exist in order for there to be an after-life. In order for religious fantasies to seem reasonable, the soul (essentially just our disembodied mind) must be independent and independently viable outside the body. For many, the mind or soul is bestowed by god and is the uniquely holy and human thing that we have that lesser species do not. For them, the mind has to be separable to support their fantasy of God-given uniqueness from the rest of the animal kingdom. A unified mind-body greatly undermines their case for creationism, human divinity, and an afterlife.

So this illusory assumption of dualism is propagated by familiar computer analogies, by ubiquitous fantasy and science fiction, by horror ghost stories, and by our dominant religious and new age thinking. But this dualistic pseudoscience leads to many false and misleading ideas about how our brains work. That in turn results leads us to a great deal of mistaken thinking about a broad and diverse range of questions and precludes our ability to even imagine more realistic answers to those questions.

One harm this idea does is to provide a circular, self-fulfilling basis for belief in the supernatural. If we accept the assumption that our mind is independent, that then demands some kind of mystical explanation. But this dualistic thinking hinders our understanding of many non-religious questions as well. How do newborns fresh out of the womb or the egg know what to do? How can thoughts be inherited? How can a child be born gay? The answer to all these questions become quite simple if you shed your mistaken assumption of dualism. We all start with an inherited brain structure which is the same as to say that we are all born with thoughts and emotions and personalities.

When you truly internalize that the mind and body are one and the same, that our thoughts arise purely from our brain micro-structure and our unique body chemistry, new and far simpler solutions and perspectives open up for a wide range of otherwise perplexing and vexing social, scientific, and metaphysical questions.

Someone smarter than me could write a fascinating book about all the ways that this fantasy of an independent consciousness leads us to false conclusions and inhibits our ability to consider real answers to important questions. But if you simply become aware of this false assumption of duality, you will find that you’ll naturally start to look at a wide range of questions in far more satisfying and logically self-consistent ways.

 

 

The Last Gasp of God

One book that I frequently recommend is “The Merchants of Doubt” (see here). It was even made into a documentary film. The authors document the decades-long campaign of misinformation orchestrated largely by a small group of “reputable” scientists with the goal of discrediting any legitimate arguments against DDT and other hazardous pollutants, ozone-destroying CFC propellants and refrigerants, acid rain caused by coal burning, tobacco and its links to lung cancer, and most recently man-made climate change.

These scientists employed well-refined tactics to delay any meaningful reform in these areas. Essentially, their strategy was to create doubt about these dangers. As long as they could manufacture even the thinnest illusion of doubt, they could delay any efforts to restrict those industries. They succeeded for a long time – and still succeed with climate change – but only with the complicity of mainstream media organizations that publish their made-up arguments over and over again because they create bankable controversy and bolster the impression that their media coverage is fair-mined and impartial.

The New York Times has consistently been, unwittingly or not, one of the most influential misinformation machines for these merchants of doubt. And they are still helping them out. The other day they published an opinion called “God Is a Question, Not an Answer” (see here). In it, author William Irwin, a Professor of Philosophy at King’s College, puts forth ridiculous arguments in an attempt to discredit atheism. Or, more specifically, to create doubts about the fundamental intellectual validity of atheism.

Irwin claims that any reasonable, intellectually honest atheist must admit some possibility that god might actually exist. This is the exact same manipulation that pro-tobacco advocates put forth for years – surely any scientist with integrity must admit that he has some doubt that tobacco causes lung cancer. Similarly, Irwin attempts to shame us at least into a position of agnosticism that legitimizes religious belief. He says:

“Any honest atheist must admit that he has his doubts, that occasionally he thinks he might be wrong, that there could be a God after all …”

“People who claim certainty about God worry me, both those who believe and those who don’t believe. They do not really listen to the other side of conversations, and they are too ready to impose their views on others. It is impossible to be certain about God.”

These are false and totally ridiculous assertions. The only people that actually worry me are those that express any doubt whatsoever. As to the first claim, it is simply as silly as if one said:

“Any honest atheist must admit that he has his doubts, that occasionally he thinks he might be wrong, that there could be an Easter Bunny after all …”

This is a totally fair substitution since God has not one iota more factual credibility than the Easter Bunny. And again – just as with DDT, and tobacco, and CFC’s – the New York Times is complicit in helping to propagate and maintain this illusion of legitimate doubt by publishing this article.

I don’t condemn the New York Times for printing a viewpoint that doesn’t agree with me; I don’t condemn them for publishing a wide range of ideas; and it isn’t my goal to muzzle free-speech; but it is fair to criticize the New York Times for publishing harmful factual nonsense – just as they did in all those other areas so well documented in the Merchants of Doubt. And facts aside, this particular article is not even theoretically sound as an intellectual debate or legitimately valid discussion.

Make no mistake, belief in god is harmful factual nonsense. And this campaign to create intellectual doubt has been working. Even the vast majority of my atheist friends have been at least partially influenced by this argument and shamed by articles like this one, published by respected organizations like the New York Times, into a false position of agnostic intellectual “honesty.” But in my opinion, the only intellectually honest and courageous position is that there simply can be, is no god.

I would have come away dispirited and disappointed by this article, but happily the New York Times readers are far more intelligent and less gullible than New York Times contributors and reviewers. When I scanned the more than 750 comments, I found that essentially all of them see right through this nonsense for exactly what it is. The vast majority were clear-eyed and astute in calling bullshit on this transparent manipulation.

DyingCandleThat makes me VERY encouraged. When merchants of doubt like William Irwin have to resort to manufacturing doubt, it is an admission that they know they cannot win on the merits of their position. It is their last gasp to cling to religion and delay the widespread outright rejection of god. That the dying candle of religion should finally burn out is inevitable because facts inevitably win in the end. Tobacco does cause cancer whether you admit it or not. Man-made climate change threatens our planet whether you choose to believe it or not. And there is no god to come and save us no matter how much you would like there to be. It’s all up to us and only us.

The public is obviously figuring that out. Too bad it is taking so long for the New York Times, once again, to stand for facts rather than propagating manufactured illusions of doubt on factual matters. I thank all the New York Times readers who posted their comments to this article and thereby reminding me that just because some professor of philosophy publishes some nonsense, even if it is published in the New York Times, many, many of us are simply not buying the doubt they’re selling any longer.

Let’s hope that desperate articles like this one are nothing more than the last gasps of a dying god.

 

Dismissed with Prejudice

ElvisDo you have one of those wacky friends? The ones with a deep, sincere, heartfelt conviction that Elvis still lives. That he is actually in seclusion preparing for his epic comeback? Busy rehearsing for the ultimate Elvis concert that will transform the world?

Your friend undoubtedly has an articulate rebuttal for every possible reason you can throw at him for dismissing the possibility that Elvis might still be alive. His death was staged. The witnesses are all in on it. The corpse in Graceland is a DNA-identical clone of him. He is being kept young by a chemical concoction that the pharmaceutical industry has suppressed.

Your friend probably turns the tables on your skepticism quite easily. How can you be so arrogant to claim to know everything? Are you that close-minded? Surely you can’t prove and therefore can’t know for certain that he isn’t still alive. If you are as scientifically open-minded as you claim you must admit some possibility that he might still be alive. Surely you can admit that reasonable people can disagree on this unless you believe he is dead purely as a matter of faith. The only intellectually honest position on this question must be agnosticism.

Your friend points to several well-regarded scientists who admit that it is possible Elvis is alive. He recommends a plethora of scholarly books that debunk all those fallacious “scientific” arguments claiming that Elvis is dead.

Or perhaps your friend has a different but similarly wacky belief that he clings to and argues for with great passion.

All that was my way of setting the stage for the real point of this article – that I do not need to read any of those books purporting to prove that Elvis might be alive. Elvis is dead. Period. Any book that starts with the premise that he may still be alive is necessarily idiotic. There is no need for me to actually read them in order to legitimately dismiss them out of hand. Good scientists dismiss an infinite number of implausible claims all the time every day.

So there is no need for me to entertain arguments about how Elvis might still be alive. And there is no reason for me to read a book that starts with the premise that Elvis is alive or the Holocaust did not happen or the Moon landing was faked or alien overlords built the pyramids. I can dismiss them all out of hand without even reading the book jacket. The only reason to read them may be if your interest is studying delusional thinking or the infection of magical thinking amongst otherwise healthy individuals.

And I have read a great many of these books that purport to present a logical or scientific argument for at least allowing the possibility that god might exist. When I wrote my book Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here) I took the time to slog through a 4-foot stack of books that undoubtedly made Amazon the lucrative enterprise it is today. It was largely a waste of time and money on my part. Believers have had two millennia to come up with arguments so there are simply no new ones to be found.

As a concrete example, I bought several books on Neurotheology (see here). I did the world a service by throwing these out rather than reselling them. Written by Andrew B. Newberg and a host of his followers, these books typically spend 250 pages citing brain imaging and cognitive studies related to belief and god. Their real goal is to establish their science creds so that you will believe them when, in the last 50 pages, they leap to outlandish claims that go something like “since we have clearly evolved to believe in god, the only conclusion must be that god himself designed us to believe in him.”

The only conclusion is that this is an idiotic conclusion. But then again what can you hope to get from any author that starts from the silly premise that god exists and works backwards?

Religious books purporting to be scientifically legitimate examinations of the “evidence” for god pop up on Amazon every day like so many weeds. I can’t read them all but I can still dismiss them all out of hand. There simply is no god, can be no god, and therefore every book claiming to argue this point is necessarily as idiotic as books arguing that Elvis is alive and well and living in a secret wing of Graceland.

And thus, dear reader, we finally reach the heart of my dilemma: Do I read these silly books and respond to them or do I simply ignore them?

Ignoring them is not easy. If no one pushes back on them, they seem to win the argument. And there are so many of them saying the same silly things that many readers mistake quantity as an indication of quality. On the other hand, the time for engaging these silly debates is over. At this stage of the atheist movement, we must move past engaging in and thereby legitimizing these ridiculous debates. We should give no more consideration to religious ideas than we do to racist ideas or homophobic ideas or sexist ideas or the idea that Elvis is amongst us.

Still it’s hard to resist getting sucked in. Recently a new book appeared on Amazon called “Can Science Explain Religion” (see here) written by a priest who is also a Professor of Religion. It apparently “debunks” the very theory of the evolution of belief that I present in my own book. Do I buy this and read it so I can credibly criticize it and defend my position, and thereby risk encouraging this nonsense? Or is it best not to even respond and hope that the rest of the country follows my sensible example?

After struggling with this dilemma for many years, I have come to believe that refusing to engage is the best strategy moving forward. Engaging in further debate with them only feeds the beast. Like booing Donald Trump at a rally.

It’s not an easy course of action nor is it without risk or criticism. But in science, we must first ask whether our basic assumptions are valid before we enter into discussions of the resulting questions. We must not let ourselves get caught up in grand debates over how Santa manages to deliver all those presents in one night when the very premise of Santa is pure fantasy.

And that is how we should respond to these books and these arguments – by dismissing them out of hand and with great prejudice and by refusing to entertain dependent arguments arising out of purely implausible assumptions.